Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Celebrating 100 years of beautiful climbing--and the hidden surprises on Denali

A view from the top. Photo- National Park Service
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first summit on Denali (aka Mount McKinley), which is for many the ultimate image of a pristine wilderness. However, recent research by Dr. Michael Loso from Alaska Pacific University points to a very different reality. By calculating the average number of climbers who have ascended the popular West Buttress Route and the average multi-week expedition length of 18 days, Dr. Loso estimates between 152,000 and 215,000 pounds of human waste have been deposited by climbers in crevasses of the Kahiltna Glacier. In more illustrative terms, we are talking 13 adult male Asian elephants’ worth of waste in the crevasses.

While the waste may be out of sight, it is buried by snow accumulation and incorporated into a river of ice that moves 1,400 feet per year in some areas. Preliminary findings suggest the crevassed waste remains biologically active and will emerge at the Great Ice falls in the next decade (9.3 miles downstream from Basecamp). The National Park Service anticipates public health issues as well as negative impact on the visitor experience as these waste piles start emerging.

A 2007 mandate in Denali National Park requires climbers at base camp (7,200 feet) and those who ascend above the camp at 14,200 feet to pack out waste in a personal, portable canister called a Clean Mountain Can (CMC). Since implementation, conditions have greatly improved above the 17,200-foot High Camp, which had become notoriously unsanitary.

“Climbers have been really receptive to changes,” said Lead Mountaineering Ranger Coley Gentzel. “Staff has seen nothing but positive reactions towards the CMC program.” While the pack-out program has succeeded in reducing waste encountered at the high camps, climbers are still directed to deposit the contents of their CMCs into designated crevasses below the 14,200-foot camp.

The findings at the Kahiltna raise questions about the ongoing practice of crevasse disposal on Denali. Meanwhile, two popular summits closer to home—Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker—have long required that climbers pack out their waste with “blue bags” that are issued with climbing permits. Blue Bags must be disposed of in designated receptacles, not in the garbage.

What can you do to reduce your impact on other snowy summits? Commercially available products like Cleanwaste WAG Bags and Biffy Bags include a biodegradable powder that deodorizes and neutralizes solid waste so that it can be disposed of directly in the trash after your adventure.

To read more on the story please visit www.nps.gov/dena/naturescience.

No comments: